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What do you think of the ‘Anthropocene’?

March 31, 2010

I was sitting here reading this and thinking to myself — ‘I wonder what other geoscientists think about this?’ — at which point I remembered I could just ask you all through this blog!

The question of whether or not we need to formalize a new geological time period (or, I guess ‘epoch’, in this case) that reflects the significant influence of human activities on the planet’s processes comes up every now and again these days. Numerous proponents of establishing an ‘Anthropocene’ authored an article in GSA Today in 2008 (pdf), which resulted in some discussion on geology blogs.

This latest press release refers to another paper by the same authors, J. Zalasiewicz*, M. Williams, W. Steffen, and P. Crutzen, in the April 2010 edition of Environmental Science and Technology called “The new world of the Anthropocene”. This is one of several essays in a special issue marking the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day in the U.S.

I won’t go over their arguments here — you can read it for yourself if you haven’t already. What I’d like to know is if anybody is using this term? I haven’t seen it formally used — that is, I haven’t seen it in print in a technical paper. But, I have seen it popping up in talks here and there in the last year or so. And I don’t mean a presentation about whether or not we should use the term ‘Anthropocene’, but a talk that simply uses it just like any other time period. I suppose that makes sense — most authors steer clear of using ‘unofficial’ terms in their papers — or, if they do, the peer-review process catches it. But, in a talk, people are a bit more free to use such terminology.

Then there is the whole problem of where to put the Holocene-Anthropocene boundary. While many think of the industrial revolution and its effects on the global climate as an obvious starting point, others, like Ruddiman in his book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, argue that an earlier revolution — the agricultural revolution had a significant influence on climate patterns through land use changes. This would push the beginning of the Anthropocene to several thousand years ago. While such issues with the placement of the boundary would obviously have to be reconciled if it were ever to become a formal term we can still ponder and debate the utility of the term ‘Anthropocene’.

I’m trying to think if I have used ‘Anthropocene’, even just in casual conversation. If I did I’m sure I said it with a look on my face like “yeah, that’s right, I just said ‘Anthropocene'”. The term I do use for my Holocene research is ‘pre-anthropogenic’. For example, if discussing the history of sediment flux of a river during the Holocene it is useful to know at which point there is significant anthropogenic influence (e.g., building a dam).

So, what do you all think? Do you think formalizing this would be valuable? Does the whole affair make you want to throw your computer out the window in frustration? Are you apathetic? Note: I’m mostly asking those who would actually use the term as part of their research, writing, or reporting.

Even if we don’t establish formal terminology with the ICS and don’t actually use this particular term it seems to me that the entire exercise gets us thinking and talking, which is always a good thing.

-

* As an aside, I read Zalasiewicz’s popular book The Earth After Us last year and enjoyed it immensely. It’s whimsical, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read — I definitely recommend it.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2010 4:40 am

    I have mixed feelings about the whole concept. One the one hand, it’s an evocative shorthand for the important message that human activity is having a significant, and potentially long-lasting, effect on the planet we live on. But in terms of public engagement, it has its limitations, because the public’s understanding of the geological timescale dilutes the meaning of saying we’ve now entered the ‘Anthropocene’ (I think you’ve grumbled before about how people don’t understand that dinosaurs died out at the KT boundary – sorry, K-Pg boundary – by definition, not coincidence. If it’s going to be useful in the public engagement sense, we need to work on that.

    On the practical sense, I wonder if trying to officially define a boundary would just end up being one long and tedious argument. As you say in the post, where you’d want to draw the boundary would probably depend on your preferred proxy – changes in land use at the dawn of agriculture probably show up sharply in things like the pollen record (and possibly in terms of CO2, if you accept Ruddiman’s arguments), but other potential markers, like the introduction of artificial chemical species and isotopes, appear much later. A lot of changes are accelerating over time – where do you draw the line?

    Most of the geo-/bio-/environmental changes that we honour with a boundary in our timescale are probably quite messy over human timescales – and if you accept the argument that we are driving a geological significant change in the Earth system, it’s going to be difficult to define any boundary whilst we’re still in the middle (indeed, still forcing!) that change.

  2. March 31, 2010 4:42 am

    Firstly, geochronologic and chronostratigraphic units aren’t intended to memorialize anything: they are pragmatic approaches to dividing up chunks of time and rock (respectively) in a usable fashion. Since we have something much more finely correlated–namely, calendars–for the last few centuries, I don’t see any compelling reason to use “Anthropocene” as a legitimate Epoch.

    That said, it IS a useful term for an event, since that is all it can be. It is not sustainable on anything like geologic time scales (except from a Quaternary worker’s point of view, but they are just dirt diggers :-). So I would regard the Anthropocene more like the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum than like the Pleistocene: an event, not a time unit.

  3. March 31, 2010 7:33 am

    Chris says:

    “I think you’ve grumbled before about how people don’t understand that dinosaurs died out at the K-Pg boundary by definition, not coincidence.”

    Me grumble? Never! :)
    Perhaps a discussion of whether or not to even establish an additional time period (epoch) demonstrates to the public that the timescale is a human-made construct in the first place. Whether or not we decide to formalize an ‘Anthropocene’ in the timescale, the processes of the Earth will go on.

  4. March 31, 2010 7:39 am

    Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. says:

    “So I would regard the Anthropocene more like the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum than like the Pleistocene: an event, not a time unit.”

    Hmmm, that’s an interesting way to think about it. In fact, now that I think about it, Zalasiewicz’s book ‘Earth After Us’ makes the point that observers far in the future (100 million years from now) would very likely characterize our time as instantaneous. He called it the ‘urban stratum’.

  5. zane permalink
    March 31, 2010 8:22 am

    urban stratum – I like it. I also think that far in the future someone will regard that stratum as a major extinction event, one being manifested in amphibians at the moment. I think for geologists, it might not be so useful as a term, but for the common man, it might bring awareness to just how much we are changing the Earth . . . BR, this is my first post on here, but hopefully one of many!

  6. March 31, 2010 11:06 am

    I’ve made offhand comments about the Anthropocene on field trips (“that pile of cans is an Anthropocene deposit – now please look at the Cretaceous rocks behind it”). As a research term – well, I’ve never worked on Cenozoic rocks, so I’m unlikely to use Anthropocene in research. I’m curious about what geomorphologists think.

  7. March 31, 2010 12:03 pm

    As I said before on twitter, I don’t even like how it sounds either in Spanish or English.
    I think that saying anthropocene we are back to the most anthropocentric version of science research. We are not the center of Earth, altough we are directly and indirectly introducing changes on geological processes.
    I thinkg we need a better name!

  8. March 31, 2010 12:08 pm

    I argued more than 5 years ago that “the best way to respond to Crutzen’s proposal is to add the Anthropocene Age under the Holocene Epoch. That is already established by traditional geologic methods, so nothing would change in the field or in the lab.” Haven’t changed my mind one bit. And that way speakers could use the term they like for the point they want to make.

    I have seen the term used in oral and poster presentation titles, but not in the automatic way you’d use terms like “Tertiary.”

  9. March 31, 2010 12:17 pm

    Fubarene?

  10. March 31, 2010 3:09 pm

    Yet another complication is that “Anthropogene” has been used, erratically and mostly in Europe, generally as a synonym for “Holocene” or “Quaternary”, going back to the 1960s at least.

    I’m with Tom on this one, perhaps unsurprising since I am also a paleontologist that works mainly in the Mesozoic. Geochronlogic units should name practical divisions of time, and not ones that are mostly yet to occur. Naming a “new” epoch a few hundred, or thousand, years in seems like releasing a best films of the century list before the first decade is out.

  11. lockwooddewitt permalink
    March 31, 2010 3:59 pm

    There are quite a few interesting perspectives here; I find myself in closest agreement with Chris. I’m not sure there is any scientific utility in trying to establish the term in any official sense. If, as I worry, we are sowing the seeds of our own extinction, the period will be too short to be seen as anything other than an event. If, as I hope, we still have a long bright future ahead of us, then presumably records thus far will make anything as crude as a geologic boundary unneeded.

    There was a satirical little piece (~1 page) published in Geology in the late 80’s, (if I recall correctly, in the April issue), discussing exactly this topic. My favorite suggestion was the weshouldvecene for the human-defined time period. As you might guess, there were some very irate letters in subsequent months decrying the editors’ decision to publish the blatantly tongue-in-cheek paper. Not dignified, harumph. Get off my lawn.

    In that vein, though, changes in geologic time episodes are often defined in terms of a particular fossil disappearing or making a first appearance. Ideally, it should be widespread (cosmopolitan), likely to be preserved, taphonomically robust, and present in a wide variety of environments. What would you nominate as the indicator fossil of the anthropocene? I think I would go with glass soft drink bottles.

  12. geochristian permalink
    March 31, 2010 6:54 pm

    The “Weshouldhavecene” paper referred to by lockwooddewitt was in the January 1985 issue of Geology.

    http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/13/1/4.abstract

    http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/13/1/4.full.pdf (with GSA membership)

  13. yitood permalink
    April 1, 2010 6:14 am

    Just a minor nudge of info–in 2005 for my Geomorphology class I wrote a short qualitative-type research paper analyzing the appropriateness of the use of he term Anthropocene. Basically, I researched articles in which the term had been used and compared and contrasted them. There were only a handful, but many of them used measurements of the volume of flow in a flood or a mudslide or a volcanic eruption or even regular fluvial or aeolian patterns and compared them to volumes of displaced sediment from construction around the world. The result? On a world-wide scale just as much sediment is being moved by bulldozers and shovels as might be moved by the Earth without human aid. That particular article asserted the legitimacy of the term Anthropocene.

    Thanks for writing about it!
    -Moab, UT

  14. April 1, 2010 8:47 am

    I have to agree with Thomas. I find few cases where you would use the term, rather giving an actual “date’ [or range of possible]. The is especially true if you use the industrial revolution as the starting point.

    In your sediment flux example, you could almost certainly have an exact date when a large dam was built. Even if the change in flux was based on land cover changes associated with people earlier in history, you could use some sort of dating technique to narrow it down more than just ‘the Anthropocene’. Using an actual date more precise and less confusing.

  15. April 1, 2010 11:09 am

    Thanks all for taking the time to comment … I’m in agreement with a lot of what is said in the comment thread. At this point it seems it would be difficult (and frustrating) to try and formalize the usage of this term.

    But, as I say in the post, I think the whole discussion is a nice way the geoscience community talking about to what degree we are influencing Earth’s processes and how to measure/quantify that influence.

    And if articles come out in the mainstream press every so often saying ‘Scientists consider establishing Anthropocene’ then maybe the public will ponder it as well.

  16. April 8, 2010 3:19 am

    What Thomas said:
    Calendars are good, and anthropogenic domination is highly place and system dependent. For researchers studying Australian megafauna or climate, 45 KA would be appropriate. For Greenland deglaciation, we aren’t even there yet.

    I don’t see how the term would be useful for categorizing geologic time- it seems to be more of a marketing label, not a working unit.

  17. Bob Chesson permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:15 pm

    Pure junk science! Where is the underlying scientific basis? One again we anthropomorphics (?) feel that we are the top of it all! Why not name a new time period after our favorite subject…US. Pure dribble – suspect science (or politics disguised as science).

  18. April 21, 2010 2:38 pm

    “Where is the underlying scientific basis?”

    Bob, it’s in the papers/articles linked to above. I’m not saying I personally agree, but that’s where they lay out the data and argument. It’s worth reading.

  19. Bob Chesson permalink
    April 22, 2010 11:42 am

    Brian – sorry that my earlier comment appears so snarky. It is a topic that has irritated me since an earlier article in GSA Today. When viewed through the lens of how earlier geologic time subdivisions were developed, I feel that it is somewhat premature to think that what man has done in the latter part of the Holocene will have lasting geologic impacts. Temporal changes in the biosphere and the limited land modifications (which might never be preserved in the geological record) may not even be recognizable looking back on this time from 100K or more years (if anyone is still around). I have a great mistrust in headline seeking scientific “ideas” that seems to be more for how they pay in the “popular” press than reasoned discussion and evaluation. Unfortunately we seem to get more and more of the chaff and less of the grain on many of these topics. I have a great distrust of the MAN dominant philosophy so rampant in modern popular thinking, hence my earlier political statement. We geologists know what a minor actor in the Earths’ realm of things we really are .

  20. April 22, 2010 12:44 pm

    Bob, no worries … I like having discussions about this stuff here. That’s what the blog is for after all, so I thank you for commenting.

    My take on the ‘Anthropocene’ issue can be framed by two questions:

    (1) Are the actions of humans significantly altering/influencing Earth’s processes?

    and

    (2) If so, should geoscientists adopt a new formal time period that reflects that influence?

    I would say yes to the first question but no the second. I disagree with formalizing a new time period mostly for reasons of practicality. I don’t think it would enhance communication amongst researchers — I agree with many of the other concerns voiced by commenters in this thread.

    But … humans are indeed having a significant influence on Earth’s interacting physical systems. Can we “control” it? No, of course not. But, it’s not a binary issue of complete control vs. zero influence. We ARE influencing Earth’s physical systems. The volumes of earth we move (or keep from moving) per year are immense, we have dammed up nearly every major river, the amount of the planet we’ve deforested since the agricultural revolution is significant, the list goes on and on. To think such a dominant species as ourselves has zero effect on the condition of the planet is foolhardy.

    To me, right now it’s more about quantifying the various influences, examining the interactions at different time/space scales, investigating the response of Earth’s systems to these perturbations, and then assessing what the impacts are for our habitability.

    Finally, I think your point about whether or not our actions will end up in the geologic record is a good one and I would tend to agree that much of it won’t. But, even if the results of our actions don’t end up in the long-term record that doesn’t mean they can’t negatively affect us right now. Think of all the myriad geologic events/processes over Earth history that aren’t in the geologic record that most certainly did affect the biosphere at that time.

    So, I would disagree with the last sentence of your comment. I am a geologist and would argue that we are indeed significantly affecting the Earth.

  21. April 23, 2010 8:01 am

    Here is just one of scores of examples that demonstrates the scope of our influence on Earth’s surface processes: http://my.opera.com/nielsol/blog/2010/04/23/dont-touch-our-rivers

  22. June 7, 2010 11:55 pm

    Heelo Brian Romans,
    According to me the “Anthropocene” defines earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced and “Anthropogenic” is based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.

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